An Ulster Unionist who is bidding to oust David Trimble from the party leadership urged 13 Assembly members today to back his challenge.
East Derry member David Hoey, who will challenge Mr Trimble at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in Belfast on Saturday, wrote to members of the UUP’s Assembly team.
Mr Hoey, who will attend Saturday’s meeting as a voting delegate despite not being a member of the ruling council, has sent a letter to MLAs who failed by two votes to have Mr Trimble’s leadership debated at their weekly group meeting at Stormont earlier this month.
Sources close to the Coleraine-based marketing and management consultant revealed he had told the MLAs the Ulster Unionist Council was being given the opportunity this Saturday to “vote for change".
“David Hoey would prefer that there did not have to be a vote this Saturday and that there would be an agreed new leadership by March 27.
“But with David Trimble showing no signs of standing down, the letter makes it clear that essentially it is up to the council to force change.”
Under Ulster Unionist Party rules, the leader must seek the backing of his ruling council every year to stay on.
Mr Hoey announced on Friday that he will challenge.
He also confirmed that if he wins Saturday’s vote, he would immediately step aside to enable candidates for a new leadership team uniting the party to put their names forward.
Mr Hoey believes the UUP cannot unite under Mr Trimble and a new leadership team is needed to revitalise the party.
Former Stormont economy minister Reg Empey, who has been touted as a possible replacement for Mr Trimble, has indicated he will put his name forward only if the Upper Bann MP were to stand down.
The Ulster Unionists have suffered a number of setbacks over the past year.
Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists overtook them as the largest party in unionism and in Northern Ireland at November’s Assembly elections.
The party has also witnessed a series of defections to the DUP since January at grassroots and at Assembly and Westminster level, with Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson and MLAs Norah Beare and Arlene Foster leading the way.
Mr Donaldson left the UUP after a bitter battle over policy with supporters of Mr Trimble.
In recent weeks, Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside and former leader Jim Molyneaux have called for a new leadership team.
Mr Burnside said yesterday he would support Mr Hoey’s challenge because it was a vote “to instigate change and try to get a united leadership for unionism”.
Supporters of Mr Trimble attacked Mr Hoey’s challenge.
East Derry MLA David McClarty has accused Mr Hoey of being “a pawn” for others who were afraid to take on Nobel Peace prize laureate Mr Trimble directly in a leadership battle.
Former Stormont culture minister Michael McGimpsey has also denounced the move, claiming it was masking an attempt to reverse party policy.